The Third Sunday of Advent December 11, 2011
701 [TLH alt. 61], 514, 427, 713 [TLH alt. 89(1,5)]
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.
In Christ Jesus, who is our ever-present companion to chase away all fear, dear fellow-redeemed:
Human beings and animals have certain biological similarities, but their creation was distinct and unique from the very beginning. Nevertheless, we can at times turn to the animal kingdom and find illustrations of our own behavior. This morning we turn to a particular breed of dog—the Dalmatian.
The Dalmatian is considered by some to be not particularly kind or affectionate, and a breed that is not good with children because of its tendency to bite. However, this is not really the dog’s temperament or personality. The reason why Dalmatians may act this way is because the breed is prone to diabetes. As a result of diabetes they frequently go blind. When they can not see very well, they fearfully lash out and bite at the unknown. When we can’t “see,” when we can’t understand, we also often respond out of fear.
There are many reasons to be afraid—so much so that if we were to think about all of the reasons long enough we might not even dare to venture our of our houses: What if we have a car accident? What if I become a victim of terrorism? What if something goes wrong and there is a catastrophe? What about all the dangers and problems that they talk about on the nightly news?
All of this builds up into uncertainty and like a dog that cannot see, we lash out in defensive fear at what we don’t understand. Or, on the other hand, fear may lead us to have the opposite reaction and cower and hide.
Today, in our series of angel messages leading up to Christmas, we come to the angel’s message to Joseph. The message is: DO NOT BE AFRAID.
The angel that appeared to Joseph is not identified by name and appears in a dream rather than in person as Gabriel had appeared to Zacharias and Mary. Even though the means by which the angel appeared was different, there is no uncertainty that this was an angel sent by God bearing a message from God to Joseph.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed. Betrothal was somewhat like our engagement, but not entirely. In the custom of Jesus’ time, a man and woman were betrothed when they made their promises to one another and to God for a lifelong union. This was done in a worship setting among the families and was, in many ways, the equivalent of our marriage services.
Once this service was completed and the promises had been made, the woman returned to her parents’ home and the man returned to his home. Then for a period of time which could be as long as a year, the man was busy preparing a home for his bride. It could be a matter of adding additional space to his parents’ home, or it could be building a new home for his bride and himself.
The man and woman lived apart until the home was prepared. When the building was completed and the home prepared, the bridegroom would come to the bride’s parents’ home with friends and then escort his bride with her friends to the new home. Once at the home, friends and family helped to celebrate in a week-long marriage feast and from that time forward the man and woman lived together as husband and wife.
In Matthew’s inspired account, we hear very specifically that Mary and Joseph were betrothed—the promises were made. In the eyes of God and people they were married, but they had not yet come together as husband and wife (cf. v.18), and Mary was still a virgin.
It was during this intervening time—between betrothal and consummation of the marriage—that Mary had seen the angel. The angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. Following the angel’s appearance, Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth’s house and stayed there for three months. It was upon Mary’s return from Elizabeth that Joseph began to see the undeniable—Mary was pregnant.
Put yourself in Joseph’s place. They were at the height of wedding planning. Think of all of the future dreams that he and Mary had dreamt together, all of the plans they had made, the thankfulness in Joseph’s heart for the wonderful wife God had given him, all of the emotion…and then suddenly this! Mary was pregnant and what could Joseph conclude other than she had been unfaithful? Unfaithfulness on Mary’s part would have so betrayed their love for one another. Unfaithfulness on Mary’s part would have been so out of character for the godly woman whom Joseph had known and loved. Joseph was undoubtedly stricken with tremendous hurt, sadness, and perplexity at what had transpired.
If Joseph wanted to end the marriage in view of Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness he had two options. He could publicly expose Mary as an adulteress—Joseph had every legal right to publicly brand Mary as an unfaithful wife. Or, he could divorce her privately without going into any particular detail and simply end their marriage.
We hear in our text that “Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.” [v.19] This provides a glimpse of Joseph’s faithfulness and love for Mary because in the midst of all the hurt, in the midst of all the confusion, in the midst of plans gone awry, he showed tremendous love for Mary, did not want to shame her, and was going to divorce her quietly.
It was at that time and in those circumstances as Joseph pondered what to do that the “angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins’.” [vv.20-21] Joseph was encouraged by the angel to take heart and not be afraid because things are not always what they seem. Joseph looked at what seemed to be obvious unfaithfulness, but the angel assured Joseph: “No, Joseph, Mary has been completely faithful. She has not betrayed her love for you. The child she has growing inside of her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, but it is not a son of unfaithfulness. It is the Son of God accomplished by God’s miraculous work and grace.
Similarly, as we face a variety of challenges, sorrows, and disappointments in our lives, things are not always what they seem. There is courage to be taken when we remember that God is in control and that God will work these things out according to His will.
Consider another example from Scripture, this time from the Old Testament. When the Children of Israel fled Egypt after the 10th plague, they found themselves surrounded by the Red Sea, wilderness, and mountains; and the Egyptian army was coming from behind them in full attack mode. Where could they go? Where would they find deliverance? It looked hopeless! There was no hope, no way to escape certain death—at least not according to what they could see. But things aren’t always what they seem to be. “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever. The Lord shall fight for you and you shall hold your peace’” (Exodus 14:13-14).
Things are not always what they seem and we can take courage and confidence by relying on the fact that God has everything in control; and even when we can’t see His purposes and even if He is moving in very mysterious ways, there is certainty that He is overseeing all things according to His wisdom and for our blessing.
We are enlightened by the Holy Spirit and through the faith He gives we are able to see that God is in control. Without the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit we are like a blind Dalmatian—we won’t be able to see, we won’t be able to understand, and we’ll lash out or cower in fear; but through the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts a confidence and trust grows. That trust goes to God’s Word to shed light into our life of darkness. We still may not be able to see exactly what is going on, we still may not be able to understand everything, but we do have confidence that God is working His holy plan underneath what may look awful.
We will not see and understand everything perfectly until eternity. The Apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Through the prophet Jeremiah God promises: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). No matter how troublesome things may be, do not be afraid because God is working through these things to give you a future and a hope.
Joseph received more comfort and encouragement from the name he was to give to Mary’s child—Jesus, which means “Savior.” Matthew draws the connection to the Old Testament for us: “So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” [vv.22-23]
The Savior’s name, “Immanuel,” offers tremendous encouragement in the face of fear: Immanuel—God with us! Jesus is present with us at all times. He will not leave us or forsake us (cf. Matthew 28:20). Jesus promises that where two or three are gathered together in His name, He is there in the midst of them (cf. Matthew 18:20). He comes to us through His Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to encourage, to enlighten, to comfort, and to assure us of the forgiveness of sins which He came to win.
Joseph’s reassurance was that God was with him. As he moved forward and took Mary as his wife—not fully understanding or knowing what lay ahead—he had the confidence that this was God’s Will, that God was traveling with him. When Joseph took Mary to be his wife he had the confidence that God was on his side, God would bless his union with Mary, and God would continue to be with him at all times and in all places. For Joseph, this was saying a great deal. He would take Mary to be his wife, he would go to Bethlehem, he would see Mary give birth and lay her son in a manger. He would flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus to escape the murderous efforts of King Herod. All of this lay ahead for Joseph—there would be many more opportunities for fear—but the angel’s message to Joseph was, “Do not be afraid, because God is with you.”
If there was any remaining fear for Joseph it would be chased away by the knowledge that the God who was with him was all powerful. The angel described Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit. In that conception and all of the upcoming events, there would be no doubt that God had power to deliver, to save, and to accomplish His will. Today’s Old Testament reading speaks about the strength of God. When our strength fails, when the youngest and strongest grows weak and falls, God’s strength is constant. His power is at the ready to help us in every need.
So with the angel’s message and the renewed confidence in the Lord’s will that it gave, “Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name Jesus.” [vv.24-25]
Encouraged by the message of God through the angel, Joseph got up and did what he needed to do. Joseph got up and followed the Lord’s plan for his life. Joseph got up and went forward strengthened in the courage and power of the Lord. Joseph confidently followed-through on God’s will. He took Mary to be his wife, however, he did not have a physical relationship with her until after Jesus birth so she remained a virgin; and when Jesus was born he gave his step-son the name which the child’s Father had chosen.
What do you fear? What don’t you understand about your present life, or what may lie ahead in the future? There is no question that each one of us will face things in our life—probably every single day—which cause us to be afraid. We might try to put on a brave face. We might speak and/or act with a degree of bluster as if nothing could ever touch us and we are invincible, but inside there is enough in our own weakness and the world around us to cause every single one of us to fear. We don’t need to be like the Dalmatian that can’t see, because we can have the confidence of God’s promises just as Joseph did. We have the confidence that God is working out His wise plan for us, whatever comes. He sees, He knows, we can simply trust Him.
In his first epistle John writes: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:17-19). The perfect love of God that sent Jesus to be born, the perfect love of God that moved Joseph to follow-through on God’s direction, the perfect love of God demonstrated to us in the salvation which Jesus won—that perfect love casts out the fear.
No we’re not going to be able to see everything perfectly, but we know in the midst of the uncertainty that “God loves me.” In the midst of the uncertainty or fear we know that “God has redeemed me.” In the midst of the uncertainty and fear we know that our sins are washed completely away so we don’t need to fear Judgment Day—the day of greatest fear if we were to attempt to stand face-to-face before God still guilty of our sins. But even standing before God is not fearful because our sins are washed away and He declares us righteous and holy. The perfect love of God casts out fear, and resting in that love we need not be afraid.
When you face things that are fearful, remember the angel’s message to Joseph. Things are not always what they seem—God is working. God is with you, ever-present with His power. He says to you:
Fear not, I am with you,
Oh, be not dismayed.
For I am your God
and will still give you aid.
I’ll strengthen you, help you,
and cause you to stand,
Upheld by My righteous,
omnipotent hand. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.